By Alan Rodgers
FACTS from the fairly recent past could have forewarned us of the cold, hard reality that Cavan deserved to be given a far better chance of defeating Donegal in Sunday’s Ulster final than was ultimately provided to them.
Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. Now, as we reflect on how the Breffni men return to the pinnacle of Anglo Celt glory for the first time in 23 years, all these positive pointers keep making their presence felt.
Maybe more attention could and should have been paid to Cavan’s re-appearance in the final for the second year running. Maybe, pundits should have taken a look back to their run of four Ulster u-21 successes a decade ago. Or the fact that their provincial u-21 success in 2014 came at the expense of a Donegal team containing Paddy McBrearty, Ryan and Eoin McHugh and Ciaran Thompson.
Perhaps some of those factors were what drove Cavan on at the Athletic Grounds. More probably, though, it was their sheer determination, their commitment in the tackle and their now famous resolve which made all the difference.
Chris Conroy has been one of their stand-out performers throughout this season. He, too, is a product of their morale-boosting u-21 success of a decade ago which have finally and emphatically yielded a memorable and deserved dividend with their win over Donegal.
The Lavey player only made his senior championship debut a year ago against Monaghan. However, like so many of his teammates, the 28-year-old came of age at Armagh. He made a vital block to deny Donegal a certain goal in the first half and remained a pivotal figure in what was a famous and sweet triumph.
No wonder, then, that he and the rest of the Cavan team felt so delighted, satisfied and whatever adjective you want to use following this 1-13 to 0-12 win.
“We feel on top of the world. It has been too long for Cavan to be waiting for this win and there were too many heartaches, ifs and buts and near stories,” he told Gaelic Life afterwards.
“Belief was the big thing for us coming into this year’s championship. In fairness, we probably didn’t do ourselves justice in Division Two, but Mickey and the whole of the backroom team it has been all about the championship. Nobody hardly realises that we got relegated to Division Three now, but this championship is what has mattered for us.
“I don’t remember 1997, apart from going up to the match and coming home. You hear the stories and Dermot (McCabe) on the sideline was saying that in 1997 the great thing for that team was to back each other up on the sideline and on the pitch and everybody in the panel and those who weren’t able to be here did that.”
While everyone was well aware that there would be no spectators present, the absence of some of the players who were part of the panel was particularly disappointing. It did, nevertheless, provide an extra incentive for the boys in blue to make their mark.
Cavan’s success against the odds was, of course, their first in 23 years and only their second in 51 championship seasons. Statistics such as that make absolutely no difference as they bask in the glory of regaining the Anglo Celt Cup and becoming heroes for a whole new generation of young footballers growing up in the county.
“It wouldn’t have been easy for the lads who weren’t able to be here. They’d have done anything to be part of this day,” added the forward with a knack for tracking back.
“Our aim was to get back to Breffni Park to get a bit of grub together. They are as much part of this as everyone else and put in the same effort as those who were in the matchday panel.
“The campaign this year has been nearly like a fairytale. But we knew coming in that we wanted to get to the Ulster final again. Maybe the hype got to us a bit last year in front of the big crowd at Clones and it was disappointing not to have crowds here today. But we knew against Monaghan that we could beat them and that belief was there throughout the campaign.
“The same was evident against Antrim and Down. Down are a good footballing team, but the big thing about the final was that we brought the full 70 minutes rather than just one half.
“Donegal are a good team, probably second or third favourites for the All-Ireland. They were always going to get chances and for us it was about working for each other and putting our bodies on the line.
“My role was to try and get back, and I was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to make the save in the first half.
“The goal at the end of normal time was relief as much as anything else because it gave us a four-point cushion and then even for the last four minutes we were just getting the tackles in.”
Success has been some time in coming for this Cavan team. But, as they retreated in their individual cars from the Athletic Grounds on Sunday night, the cavalcade heading back to the Breffni county was a long and joyous one befitting their status as the new Ulster champions.
Nobody will give them a chance against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. But in this year of 2020, the odds are being defied in all sorts of ways and who will dare completely rule out another major shock from this Cavan side.